As well as its flagship paper, The Economist also publishes future-gazing issues looking at what to expect the next year and even further into the future. This week Tom Standage, its Deputy Editor and Head of Digital Strategy tells us about the reason why it believes doing so is central its mission, what needs to happen to prevent journalists revisiting familiar mistakes in the near future, and why blaming the Duopoly for revenue doldrums is unhelpful.

In the news roundup the team discusses the closure of The Correspondent, The Atlantic’s new chief executive, and why UK digital news audiences have grown 30% over the year. Chris’ brain gives up halfway through the news roundup. Happy holidays, everybody!

The full transcript is live here, or see below for highlights

How ‘The World In…’ series ties into the wider Economist brand

We publish every day now on digital channels, but the core weekly product, which says, ‘What’s happening in the world? How can you make sense of it? What does it mean about what’s coming next?’ and so on, the traditional role of that product was that it was something you read over the weekend, and it helps you catch up with what’s going on in the world.

If you subscribe to The New York Times, say, you’ll get lots of fantastic coverage, but there’s more than any human can read. And [The Economist] weekly is meant to be a bundle that you can consider reading every piece. You may not read every piece, but it is a way of getting your arms around the news and feeling like you’re on top of it. And then when you get to the end of it, you’ve got that feeling, that finish-ability, you’ve got the feeling of getting to the end, and you’ve got permission to go and do something else, until work starts again.

So what ‘The World In…’ is doing is essentially the same job but on an annual level rather than a weekly level.

Carving out a space in news

The noisier and the more frenetic the news environment gets, the more demand I think there is for trustworthy content, but also content that steps back and says, ‘What’s really going on here, what really matters?’ and so on. So I think we have benefited from the fact that the pace of the news environment and that all of these new channels has meant that you really can get stuff instantly.

We’re not competing. We’re not a breaking news organisation, we’re not competing with the papers that try to break news, and get to be the first to report that this state has been certified for Joe Biden or whatever. There’s lots and lots of news organisations that will do that. And where we think we can carve out our own distinctive space and have carved out our own distinctive space is the analysis, and the step back analysis.

I know that’s come to be known as slow journalism. But I think that sort of step back, big picture stuff, that’s the part of the map that we’ve always played in.

The evolution of product processes

Since our new CEO came in a bit more than a year ago, there’s been a big expansion, a big investment in our product and technology organisations. So historically, we didn’t have a large product organisation – I don’t think we had one at all for a while. News organisations generally struggle with, where do you put product? What’s the relationship between editorial, product and technology?

Historically, quite a lot of ideas for new products came from editorial. So things like Espresso was an idea that I had. I prototyped it, and the took the idea to the board, and we got funding, and we launched it in six months, and it was an internal startup. And it was great fun to do that.

But ultimately, you need to have a innovation as a ‘business as usual’ process going on. And that’s really where we’re getting to now. We have a much more professionalised approach to developing and testing new products.

The benefits of having a long-term subscription model

I think we’re in the position of – and I’m the first to put my hand up and say, in large part because of luck – this idea of being a British publication that has most of its readers in North America, and always having had a business model that was based on subscriptions, those turned out to be the right things to have done by accident. So we’re in a happy position where we don’t have to switch our position on those things.

And then also providing a global perspective, well, as the world has become more globalised and interconnected, that’s something that there’s been more demand for. So we’ve been on the right side of history on a lot of these trends, in large part by accident.

The question is, how can we get more publishers into a position of long term sustainability? If I could wave a magic wand, that’s the question I would like to try and answer.

Key stories:

News in brief:

  • US regulators have launched two lawsuits against Facebook regarding its dominance and monopoly. Letitia James, a New York attorney general who is spearheading one of the lawsuits, has said she will not rest until the courts have ordered Facebook to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram, which she says Facebook had acquired illegally.
  • The digital news sector in the UK grew by 30% year on year to 32m daily readers in 2019 according to the latest Pamco data. Press Gazette claims this reflects the value placed in trusted sources during the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • The Atlantic has appointed Wired Editor in Chief Nicholas Thompson as their new Chief Executive. This makes perfect sense given Nick’s work in setting up paywalls at the New Yorker and Wired, and The Atlantic’s paywall pivot last year.
  • An Executive Order signed by the mayor of New York in 2019 has succeeded in delivering $9.9 million dollars to more than 230 community media outlets during Covid-19. EO47 mandated that city agencies had to spend at least half of their print and digital ad budgets in the community press. 
  • Google and Facebook have won a key concession in their battle with Australia. The legislation now allows recognition of the monetary value the platforms provide to news businesses by directing readers to their websites. Both platforms have yet to comment on the move.
  • Time has seen success with Time for Kids. Since launching a digital-only version following school closures, now more than 63,000 people have subscribed to its $19.99 a month paid tier. The title is now nearly profitable.
  • A survey conducted by Pew has found that four in 10 Americans are unsure about whether Facebook do their own reporting or not. Similarly, 40% aren’t sure whether the Wall Street Journal do their own reporting!

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